How old are you?

Lots of kids ask me this question while we are working together. They also want to know whether I have children, how old they are, and whether they have a Wii. And do I have pets?

Their parents squirm. Sometimes they ask their child to stop, explaining that these questions are rude. But some kids insist – they argue, or try the same questions again at a later time. After all, only moments earlier I asked them similar questions and they replied politely. So why can I ask whatever I like and they cannot? It’s not fair! Parents look at me sheepishly. You see what I mean? He just doesn’t understand.

Navigating the social maze can be daunting for some kids. We know that children and adults have different obligations and entitlements, and these are not just about driving, voting or paying taxes. A teacher can ask a child about his age, but it is not acceptable for a child to ask his teacher the same question. Having said that, it is OK for a child to ask another child for his age. To add to the confusion, it can be acceptable for a child to ask close relatives personal questions.

Some children absorb social norms intuitively, and seem to follow them with little prompting from us. Around the age of six, most kids do not ask these kinds of questions any more. Unfortunately other children find all this confusing. How can we help?

If your child keeps embarrassing you, it is best to keep your feelings aside and treat this as a practical, rather than a moral issue. It is not bad or wrong for a child to ask these questions. They are just unsuitable in certain circumstances. There is no point in debating whether this is fair or not – instead, we can accept that this does not seem fair to the child. We can even offer our sympathy about how unfair this may feel.

You can explain that this is just the way the world works – when a child asks an adult a personal question, other people may think he is being rude. Tell your child that you know he does not mean to be rude – he is just interested and curious. But asking adults about their looks, age or money is not allowed. People will think he is odd, or impolite, when he doesn’t mean to be.

You can then invite your child to ask you any questions whatsoever – in private.

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